Comparing the retirement expectations of older workers with and without chronic conditions

In brief

  • Workers with arthritis and diabetes, despite their health difficulties, have similar retirement plans as their peers.
  • Yet workers with chronic conditions are more likely than their healthy peers to report having retired previously and returned to work, often in part-time positions.
  • Work-related factors influence workers’ retirement plans more than health conditions do.

Published: August 2019

Why was this study done?

Predicting when workers expect to retire is a constant topic of interest for all those involved in workforce planning, especially when chronic disabling conditions are a factor to consider. But changes in treatment and self-management may have altered the impact of many chronic diseases on decisions about working. This study set out to explore the retirement expectations of older workers with chronic conditions, and to what extent these expectations differ from those of their healthy peers.  

How was the study done?

About 1,500 working Canadians aged 50 years or older were invited by email to take part in a survey-based study. Among those invited, about 600 had arthritis, 300 had diabetes, 100 had both diabetes and arthritis, and 500 had no chronic health conditions causing a disability (i.e. healthy peers). Participants were asked when they expected to retire, what factors were behind their planned retirement age, whether they had retired previously and returned to work and, if so, why. They were also asked about the impact of health conditions on their work, and the extent to which they needed and made use of a range of workplace supports such as flex time, work-from-home programs, extended health benefits and more. The survey was conducted across Canada between September and October 2014.

What did the researchers find?

Despite their health differences, participants across the board had similar plans to retire from their current jobs at around age 65, with half intending to continue to work part-time and one in 10 saying they would never stop working. However, people with arthritis were more likely than their healthy peers and people with diabetes to say they might have to retire earlier than planned (22 per cent versus seven and 11 per cent, respectively). Also, workers with arthritis and diabetes were more likely than their healthy counterparts to report having retired previously and returned to work (20 and 27 per cent versus 13 per cent).

Health conditions or symptoms such as pain and fatigue were not linked to respondents’ planned age of retirement, nor to respondents’ sense of uncertainty about when they could retire. They were, however, linked to respondents’ expectations that they may have to retire earlier than planned.

Workplace conditions played a more significant role in respondents’ retirement plans than their health conditions. Whether they had a chronic condition or not, people who expected to retire at a younger age were less likely to see work as having a positive value. Those with lower career satisfaction were more likely to say they might have to retire sooner than planned. Those working in smaller organizations were more likely to be unsure about when they would retire.

The main differences between older workers with chronic conditions and their healthy peers were related to patterns of retiring previously and returning to work. Respondents with arthritis and diabetes were 2.5 times more likely than their healthy peers to report having retired previously and then returned to work. This may be because an episode of ill health necessitated them leaving their jobs. Regardless of their health, respondents who had retired previously and returned to work, were more than seven times more likely to work in part-time jobs than those who had not previously retired.  

What are the implications of this study?

Although older workers with arthritis and diabetes experience more health difficulties than those without these chronic conditions, their expectations about their age of retirement are similar, with 65 being the norm among all groups. Health factors do not matter as much as work-related factors in influencing retirement plans. However, the variability of some chronic conditions may give rise to uncertainty around the ability of workers with these conditions to retire when planned. Also, the greater likelihood of workers with chronic conditions returned to work after a previous retirement may indicate that they have a higher level of financial insecurity.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

A strength of this study was its focus on a question that is seldom addressed in the research literature. Another strength was the high proportion of workers in the sample who reported pain and fatigue due to their chronic condition; this indicates that the study sample was not biased by an over-representation of healthy workers.

A weakness of this study was its cross-sectional or “moment in time” design, which did not allow for findings on cause-and-effect relationships among respondents’ work conditions, health conditions and retirement plans. Another weakness was the lack of information gathered on accommodation policies at respondents’ workplaces and respondents’ financial needs.